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Will Berríos' Decision Bring New Life To The Declining PIP?

by Lance Oliver

December 24, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

It's rare when a prominent politician makes a decision that serves both his own interests and those of the taxpaying public, is beneficial for both his party and the government, and wins praise from his opponents as well as his followers. But Rubén Berríos has done it.

The decision by the Puerto Rican Independence Party president to resign his seat in the Senate to continue his sit-in on Vieques won universal praise. It also brought a sigh of relief from Senate President Charlie Rodríguez, who had originally cobbled together the justification for Berríos continuing to receive his Senate paycheck despite missing all its sessions but was finding the situation increasingly hard to explain.

By resigning his seat, effective Dec. 31, Berríos does far more than let his fellow senators off the hook and avoid a rupture in the carefully constructed civility that characterizes the tri-partisan approach to the Vieques issue. He has also enhanced his own stature, brought about a helpful and logical reorganization in the top ranks of the PIP structure and, not least of all, done the right thing.

Back in early May, when Berríos joined the protesters camping on Navy land on Vieques, the expectation was that he would stay for a month or two and then let others carry on. But nothing about the Vieques situation has moved as fast as most people expected and now Berríos predicts he'll be sitting in his specially constructed wooden hut on the beach until next April, at least.

There are reasons to believe that Berríos' actions will help to rejuvenate his party. Before May, Berríos was seen by his critics as an aging man who had held onto control of his party too long and too exclusively. The party was criticized for being undemocratic and for not nurturing new talent, especially young people and women.

Berríos seemed destined to have his lifetime accomplishments overshadowed by the fate of being remembered as the person who rode the PIP downward toward near-disappearance as followers without the courage of their convictions gravitated to the Popular Democratic Party's "safe" brand of nationalism while more radical independentistas defected and complained the PIP was getting too old, complacent and establishmentarian.

Instead, Berríos now takes on the role he truly should have, a leader because of his actions, his experience and his accomplishments rather than because of the party offices he holds or the government perks he controls.

Berríos' resignation cleared the way for Manuel Rodríguez Orellana, a tireless party worker and effective communicator, to replace him in the Senate. He will also be the candidate for resident commissioner, a post he will not win but one for which he is more qualified than either of the two men who might, Carlos Romero Barceló and Aníbal Acevedo Vilá.

The reorganization allows PIP Secretary General Edwin Irizarry Mora to run the party instead of running for resident commissioner; allows electoral commissioner Damaris Mangual to focus on her important work in an election year; and places Fernando Martín in the role of leading the party in a day-to-day capacity.

What an interesting concept: each person doing what they should be doing, and what they do well. If only the other two parties would try it instead of perpetuating the old Puerto Rican tradition of choosing one caudillo-like leader, whether man or woman, pretending he or she has the charisma of a salsa star, the wisdom of a Nobel laureate and the righteousness of the pope and then giving him or her all the credit for victory, or all the blame for defeat.

The PIP itself tried that approach for about a quarter of a century with Berríos and many within the party believed there was no alternative, because that's the only way the masses would accept. It's just as likely that necessity, instead of shrewdness, led Berríos to another path. He had to chose between his Senate seat and his holding his ground on Vieques.

Regardless of his motivation, the fact that New Progressive Party legislators, PDP senators and his own followers have all applauded his decision shows that Berríos has a chance to do something out of the ordinary.

The PIP and Berríos may return to their old ways some day. Nothing about the outcome of the Vieques conflict is certain, including how Berríos' and the PIP's role will be seen by the voters of the near future or the historians who will write the final version. But this is certainly the best chance the party has for turning its slow decline into the energy of new life.

Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at:

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